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CSIRO's 'swipe right' strategy to get big data on crystals

Train our supers, please

By Richard Chirgwin, 28 Oct 2015

Australia's cash-strapped peak research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is recruiting the help of the crowd to improve its X-Ray crystallography capabilities.

Cinder – yes, that's “Tinder for crystallography” – does the crowd thing, by getting users to “swipe right” when they see a crystal on the screen.

The idea is to provide training data for the much bigger machines inside CSIRO that do the heavy-lifting of automatically classifying new forms of crystal.

As the boffins explain on the app's Google Play page: “In order to grow a protein crystal, CSIRO must set up thousands of crystallisation experiments. These experiments are small droplets where different mixtures of chemicals are combined with a concentrated, pure protein sample.

"Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing which combination of chemicals will work for any particular protein, so for every protein, many different droplets are set up.”

What pops up in the plate then has to be photographed over weeks to see if a crystal has formed, which it usually hasn't because crystals pop up in fewer than 1 per cent of samples.

Since classifying crystals is more complex than a binary yes-or-no, the app also includes vertical swipes so the viewer can identify precipitation and other events – these will feed back into CSIRO's optimisation strategies, even when an experiment doesn't yield a crystal. There's also user feedback to tell you whether you're any good at crystal identification.

X-Ray crystallography is the basis for CSIRO's research into protein structures, to support its own and others' biotech work. Cinder was developed by interns as part of the agency's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. ®

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